place-based education

Place-Based Education

What do we mean by “Place”?

We approach place through the lens of the ecological, cultural and economic perspectives of a community.

Benefits of Place-Based Education

Place-based education is an approach that connects learners and communities to increase student engagement, boost learning outcomes, impact communities and promote understanding of the world around us.

Place-Based Education Principles

We believe in learner-centered practices implemented by teachers who are lifelong learners in content and craft.

The Potential of Place-Based Education - Infographic

This infographic designed in collaboration with Getting Smart and EduInnovation provided a visual overview to guide the implementation of place-based education.

Download Full-Size Infographic

Books & Whitepapers

Place-Based Education FAQs


Place-based education connects learning with communities to increase student engagement, student outcomes, and community impact. We look at communities through the lenses of culture, economy, and ecology. Our Place-based Education Framework guides teaching and learning in all of our programs.

Place-based education is not a new idea nor something that Teton Science Schools created.  It has been used by schools across the world for many years and popularized since the early 2000s.  Teton Science Schools has been using the approach since we were founded in 1967.  Here is more information about our approach to place-based education.

Short-term outcomes:

  • We believe that student engagement increases due to increased interest in the curriculum.
  • We believe that student learning increases due to increased relevance of curriculum.
  • We believe that students and teachers understand self and community at a higher level thus positively impacting the community at all scales.

Long term outcomes

  • Agency: Students believe that they have the skills and resources to accomplish goals.
  • Community: Students see themselves as part of a thriving and vibrant community.
  • Equity: All students have access to the social capital and tools to make a difference.

Teton Science Schools’ has been compiling research about the benefits of place-based education that can be found here.

We have a whole blog post exploring the overlaps and differences between place-based education and environmental education.  In short,  place-based education (PBE) is anytime, anywhere learning that leverages the power of place and connects learners to communities and the world around us, and environmental education (EE) is “a process that helps individuals, communities, and organizations learn more about the environment and develop skills and understanding about how to address global challenges” (NAAEE). Both PBE and EE are rooted in learners cultivating and understanding their “sense of place” not just through an ecological lens, but through economic and cultural perspectives as well.

A straightforward way to start bringing place-based education into your teaching is to make connections to the local community.  Is there a community member who could come into your class to talk with your students about the local relevance of a topic?  For example, maybe a local veteran could come in to talk about their experiences in a war as your students learn about that war in their history or social studies class, or a local entrepreneur could talk about how their business emerged from a need that they saw in the community.  

Or, another approach might be to identify places that you could take students in the community to learn more about local government or local culture.  Could your students attend a local government meeting to learn more about the political process?  Could you visit a nature area to see ideas of ecology in action?  

If you want other ideas, check out this guide to getting started with place-based education.

The Six Principles

As you consider trying to establish connections in the community, start by considering who you are already working with and partnered with.  Then extend that brainstorm to consider stakeholders who are already connected and might be interested in getting more involved.  Ideas for this category might be parents who could share information about what they do, partners or family of staff or faculty members, or community members who have reached out to the school about sharing what they do or wanting to get more involved.  (For inspiration, read this example about how Mountain Academy teachers found guests who owned snakes as pets to come in and share their snakes with students who had a lot of curiosity about snakes.) After those two brainstorms, then zoom out further to think about places, organizations, businesses, and others in the community that you might want to try to connect with.  Here’s more information about our Community as Classroom principle.

Place-based education can happen anywhere – not only outside.  The key is to make the place relevant to what the students are learning and experiencing, not only the venue where the learning is happening.  The research base for using the community as a classroom is well-described in the literature on service learning – connecting students to opportunities outside of the classroom or connecting learning to relevant community-based challenges has benefits in both engagement and academic outcomes (Cylio, Durlak, Dymnicki, 2011). Here’s a blog with a few more ideas about where place-based education can happen.

In some cases, it may make more sense to think about global to local.  Another way to think about this is – what’s most relevant to your students and how can you connect with it?  If some of your students are new to your area (like immigrants or military families), it makes more sense to start with a place or context that they are more familiar with.  Then connect those topics or places to something more specific or to place-based education.  Here’s more information about our Local to Global principle.  

Place-based education goes beyond doing science and going outside.  Doing inquiry – a systematic process for making observations, asking questions, collecting data, analyzing data, and sharing what you learn – can happen in any discipline, not just science.  A way to start doing inquiry in subjects beyond science is to consider using the place triangle (economy, culture, and ecology) to get to know a place better.  Think of inquiry as getting to know a community as it currently is or as it used to be.  Here’s more information about our Inquiry-based principle.

The design thinking principle of place-based education gives an approach for making a meaningful impact in the community.  Using a maker’s space or a 3D printer are tools for place-based design thinking, and design thinking is a larger approach to learning.  Authentic service learning, where students start by learning more about a community need and progress towards helping to address that need and evaluating and reflecting on their impact, can be a good way to connect design thinking more closely to community.  

If you are curious about examples of how schools are using design thinking in community, read about how Mountain River School (VT) used design thinking for students to help design their play space or how Rock Bridge Elementary 4th graders designed bee homes based on a community needHere’s more information about our Design Thinking principle.

There are some easy ways to start embracing a more learner-centered approach in your classroom.  Consider how you might start with letting students answer questions and progress towards getting feedback from students on the class, brainstorming ideas for how they want to learn, teaching others or seeking authentic problems.  This progression could look like learners moving from expressing their interests to taking authentic leadership in the classroom.  Check out these ideas for learner-centered classrooms and this overview of our Learner-centered principle.

Creating time in the schedule for interdisciplinary, place-based projects might be an approach to start.  At Mountain Academy, the schedule includes core blocks for literacy and math in the morning. Then the afternoon includes time for interdisciplinary projects where student interests drive their application of learning from across subjects areas in authentic, relevant project-based learning.  Here’s an example of how upper school teachers at Mountain Academy built on an interdisciplinary, place-based project over time to integrate all the place-based education principles.  Here is more information about the Interdisciplinary principle.


Start with small steps. There might be a local connection to a topic in your math curriculum or a community expert you could bring to your class as a guest speaker to make a science or social studies topic more relevant.  Place-based education is curriculum agnostic, so you can use the principles to enhance and adapt curriculum you already have.  For an example of how the Mountain Academy Upper School team adapted a place-based unit over multiple years to integrate more disciplines and more place-based principles, check out this blog.

Place-based education principles can be applied to any curriculum.  Our Mountain Academy Upper School offers the IB Diploma Program as a pathway with the school-wide place-based program.

We do have a model curriculum that can be used and adapted by teacher participants in our professional development and Place Network partner schools.  Information about our model units for 5th through 9th grade age students can be found here.  Examples of how our model curriculum is aligned with place-based education principles can be found here.

Professional Development & Consulting

Visit the Teton Science Schools’ website www.tetonscience.org to find out more about our approach to place-based education and our offerings.  More information about place-based education is available from Getting Smart’s Power of Place series.